The whole fish

The top ranking song in my itunes playlist: “I’m Gonna Make You Sweat.”
Bring it back to the hippocampus: Everybody dance now, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom..
Ferdinand bought it two days ago and since then, has played it an even, 60 times. I couldn’t think of a better theme song for cooking a 12 pound fish when you’re on the 23rd floor of a building in midtown with a a lunch bell that rings at 12:30. You get one chance; there is no running out to spend another $400 on a new one. Even if you wanted to–there are no fish mongers parked between the tulips of Park Avenue because it’s just not practical to keep raw fish under your desk. In case you find yourself in this particular situation, here’s what you do:

1. Be sure to ask that the fish be delivered already in two halves, skinned and boned. I don’t travel with knives since they started checking bags on the subway.
2. Get the fish out of the fridge a half hour before to come to room temperature before you are going to roast it. Roasting it whole it in two large pieces is the way to go if you are pressed for time, you just have to swallow your nerves and cope with them later.
3. Wipe it down with paper towels, on both sides, from head to tail, checking for any stray scales. Next go over the whole fish with your finger tips, to be sure all the bones are out. This is a good reason to pack fish tweezers wherever you go. (in my purse: pastry tip, kitchen twine, fish tweezers, matches and a nutmeg.)
4. Slice up a few beautiful oranges into discs, with the rind. Set aside. Saute about 6 red bell peppers along with 6 shallots, half of a head of garlic, a sprig of thyme, a sprig of parsley and a sprig of rosemary. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove and wipe out the saute pan. Add more olive oil, the other half of the head of garlic still attached to each other, about 8 sprigs of rosemary, double of thyme and parsley. When the garlic is golden, turn off the flame.
5. Rub both halves of the fish with olive oil, and season with kosher salt. Make a rack on the sheet pan with celery stalks that cross over each other. Sprinkle half of the garlic one pan, and the other half on the other. Roughly cut up one more shallot and sprinkle that around the garlic and celery with some of the rosemary. Give each tray a few slices of orange. Lay the fish down on the trays, and cover with the remaining herbs. If the tail end is super thin, just tuck it under itself so it cooks at the same rate as the other fish. Roast at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. When the fish is no longer opaque, and flakes rather easily, it’s done. Let it rest a minute and serve with your saute of red pepper and shallot that you add just a squeeze of lemon to and a teeny weeny dash of red wine vinegar.

Goes really well with fragrant rice (saute a bunch of leeks and fold into jasmine rice with a little lemon zest.) and a salad
that’s a little spicy, like arugula. Or you could always make a warm potato (roasted or boiled) and stir the arugula into that.

If it works, strike a pose.

Meatballs

I can’t figure out how to clean my chef’s coat, which is a problem when you’ve just made over a hundred meatballs. My mother gave me the job of laundry when I was twelve years old, and my husband took it away from me when I was 40. “This is an example,” he said, “in which 5000 hours of practice haven’t helped.”
Would you rather have clean clothes or a meatball?
Soak half a cup of torn up bread in heavy cream. Fry off a piece of good bacon and chop it up. If you have a little left over chicken, chop that up. If you have a few sauteed shitake mushrooms left over, chop one of those up as well. Whisk an egg and gently mix it into the crumbs. Add a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a pound of ground, organic beef. Mix lightly with your hands. Saute an onion and a half clove of garlic with a sage leaf, a rosemary sprig, and a few leaves of parsley until delicious. Combine everything and taste for salt and pepper by frying up a mini meatball in the pan. Brown all the meatballs, then finish in a 400 degree oven until just cooked through. Make a marinara with 28 oz of whole plum tomatoes, blended with an immersion blender, or squished with your hands added to 3 cloves of sauted, halved garlic, and a few sprigs of parsley. When the meatballs are ready, pour the sauce over. Serve with a side of polenta.

Tri tip tip

Get friendly with your butcher. Finding tri tip can be like getting directions from tired people on the subway. You know they know where you need to go, but they’re too tired to talk about it. You might have to push. It’s often ground up with the bottom sirloin and lost to the world of burgers. When you get it, grill it or if you have no grill, sear it-give it a really good crust on at least two sides–then finish it in the oven at 400 degrees. It should still feel fleshy when you push it. If you get the whole trip tip, cut it into smaller pieces, about 5 inches by 3 inches, some slightly bigger, some smaller. Let it rest, then slice against the grain and set it on top of a bed of arugula dressed with a dijon vinaigrette or a beautiful olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. Shower with shavings of Parmegiano Reggiano.
I am cooking in a kitchen with a wall of windows that looks out onto midtown this week. It’s magic really. Beautiful fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs from a farm, fresh fish and meat gets delivered to me and I cook it all for a crowd of people that love to eat.

On my way

6 am. On my way to make breakfast and lunch for 30. Home by 3pm, then dinner for one. Ferdinand is having a sleepover and Jonathan is working late. Ferdinand going on a sleepover feels like Ferdinand boarding a ship for the New World. If I start crying today at work, I’ll grab an onion and start chopping.

Willing the dirt to do something

I have never been attached to the dirt in my backyard. It is what it is. The dirt doesn’t get in my way and I don’t get in the way of the dirt. We don’t have to talk to each other, I don’t have to feed it, I don’t have to understand it, I don’t have to negotiate with the dirt to listen to me and I don’t have to take the dirt for walks. I expect nothing from the dirt and it expects nothing from me. Until my friend came along and started saying things like, “You should really do something with that dirt. That’s good dirt. I would love to have dirt like that.”
The next morning I went out after breakfast to take a closer look at the dirt. I wasn’t sure how to check the authenticity; I gave it a kick. Nothing. It had never been good at growing grass, and wildflowers that I had thrown at it the year before had given up. To be fair though, there is a fig tree, a peach tree and grape vines that somebody else planted–years ago–that seem to have done all right. It was guilt really that made my next move. Ferdinand could use to know that vegetables don’t just grow in pots. My friend has no dirt of her own, and here I was with it living and breathing in my backyard and passing it by like it was someone else’s grandmother whom I didn’t know, sitting outside the retirement home for air.
My friend and I drove to the plant store and bought the last, saddest looking looking broccoli, kale, lettuce plants, strawberry roots, asparagus roots, raspberry twig, and blueberry twig that were left for the taking after the March rush. There is nothing country about Queens, but apparently there is no fooling around when it comes time to plant. We bought carrot, beet, fennel, swiss chard, red leaf lettuce, hot peppers, peas, beans, sweet peppers, chive, thyme, rosemary, basil and cucumber seeds. We are not fooling around either now. We convinced Jonathan to build planting beds and secure us more, even better dirt to fill them with. Apparently all dirt is not the same; there is a perfect mix you’re after. I gave the calculations to my husband and sent him out into the world to find it. We emptied egg cartons to start the seeds. Mary took half and I took half. I decided to give it everything I’ve got. I remembered that plants in 10th grade biology were significantly improved with lovely music and gentle conversation. I carried my trays of life-to-be outside as the sun came up, and then back in at night. I told them how beautiful they were and how green and gorgeous they would grow to be. I looked at them with the knowledge of hope. I played them concerts of Itzhak Perlman.
My husband is jealous but he’ll forgive me when he crushes his first mother love nourished, sun ripened strawberry on his tongue.

Don’t talk to strangers

Normally I encourage advice giving in the grocery store. I’m the first one to clear up confusion about the benefits of buying a whole chicken and I’ll give a shout out–”FENNEL!”–when I see someone looking at it like a late in the week crossword. I’ll wedge myself between old ladies and the lemon grass to get them to tell me how to cook with it. On Friday, I made a mistake. I was making a fresh pea soup with leeks and lemon zest and thyme and a snap of pepperoncino. I had accepted the fact that I had no time to shell enough of the tiny peas that are available at the beginning of Spring to make soup for a crowd. I had already had the talk with myself that frozen peas were fresh once and I could use the real thing for garnish. I hung my head and started to drag my boots over to the freezer aisle, when I saw them. I gasped so loudly that more than a few people turned around. Piles and piles of crinkly bags of fresh peas already shelled. I ran toward them and hugged them to me. As they sailed from the shelf to my basket, I looked at them closely. They were nearly the size of a chic pea. I knew they weren’t new peas. Ferdinand could have told you they weren’t new peas. The problem was that I wanted them to be new peas. The beige ends and solid as a rock appearance had only a slightly crumbling effect on my resolve. The lady looking at the red leaf lettuce smelled my hope weaken and spoke up. “I’ve had these, and they are delicious,” she said. That was all I needed. My mirage filled with water. I bought them up like cheap real estate.
I have never had to work so hard to get a pea to pass a taste test.
Forget the soup until Spring warms up and brings with it, proper peas. Make a pasta with fewer (and even frozen) peas instead.
Get your pasta water on and add salt to taste like a well seasoned soup. When it comes to a boil, add about half a box of good quality pasta. (de cecco is good.) Strip one or two leeks of their tough outer green bits with your knife and saute in a little butter and olive oil with a sprig of thyme, tarragon and parsley. Season with salt and pepper, and be sure to cook them slowly to prevent them from caramelizing. If you have a lemon, add a thumb’s worth of zest in one piece, minus the pith. When the leek is completely softened, add a few cloves of fresh smashed, fresh garlic. Add a generous cup of peas and a few ladlefuls of homemade stock. Reduce the stock to thicken a little. Take the pasta out when it is still seriously al dente so that it can finish cooking with the peas. Give everything a handful of fresh flat leaf parsley and another sprig of tarragon. Swirl in a good tab of butter and and a handful of Parmigiano Reggiano. Taste for salt and pepper.

Recipe: Country

I live in a big bad old city, with a whole lot of people whom I love and even more concrete. Technically, you could probably walk to the countryside from here if you kept at it, but there is nothing country about New York. Unless you squint. If you turn off the pot holed, traffic-upped Vernon Blvd. onto the bridge that takes you to the other worldly and weirdly calm, Roosevelt Island, there are stretches of stony paths on the East River that you can fly along on your bike with nothing in front or behind you. If you come back off the bridge and make a left, there is a beach down there. About the length of a living room. At low tide, there is enough room to sit on the sand. If you do a super squint in my backyard and cup your hands around the sides of your eyes, looking down at the dirt you could pretend you were on a farm. You would only be missing sound effects. If Ferdinand clears his dishes, makes his bed, ties his own shoes, does his homework, and receives the dinner that his mother has cooked for him with the grace of a gentleman, I have promised to consider getting 2 chickens. Sound effects.
Make biscuits.
2 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon of baking powder, a good pinch of salt, a better pinch of sugar, and 6 tablespoon of butter (if you have it add another tablespoon of lard–even decent bacon fat.) Combine the dry ingredients and then cut in the butter with your fingertips. Add just enough whole milk to make a super thick mud like consistency. You don’t want it to droop at all–it should stand up a bit. Put a good slather of flour on the board and scrape out the biscuit dough. Flip it over with the dough scraper so that both sides have a little flour. Pat with your hands or roll ever so gently with the pin, just until about an inch thick. Cut with a buttered and floured glass. Squeeze them together in the pan like my grandmother did, and paint their tops with butter or heavy cream. Serve them with anything.